Lunchcounter Wisdom with Shyam

From Vol. 1, No. 4

Interview by Louis Rastelli

Many people know Shyam as the man who used to run Rosie’s lunch counter, in a loft building on the Main just south of Croissant Royale. (It’s now run by Steph and Debbie and called LOCAL 103.) If they caught him on a good day, Rosie’s customers could get quite the interesting earful along with their burgers, fries and fresh carrot juice. Not long before he closed shop during the holidays, I decided it would be worthwhile to document some of the lunchcounter wisdom he’s well-known for.

I first formally met Shyam at Barfly, where the country band Mark Peetsma’s in (The Green Ridge Barn Burners) were having their first of their ongoing Sunday gigs/ drinkfests. Mark introduced us and mentioned to Shyam that I might want to interview him for this magazine I put out.
“What would you want to interview me about?” he asked.
“I don’t exactly know,” I said, “but probably stuff about how St. Laurent has changed through the years.”
“What do you mean by change,” he said, “people make their money, they spend their money, they walk up and down the street, they drink, that’s not change, baby!”
As I soon learned, Shyam rarely makes a statement without backing it up with a little story.
“There’s this woman,” he began, “she’s rather old by now, but every Friday she goes to the Miami bar, walks up the stairs, and has a couple of drinks by herself. For years and
years she’s been doing this. She might not even know that it isn’t the Romanian Social Club anymore. But there she is, at the same place, still up those same stairs, you know,
sitting there at the same spot. Different bartender, different name on the door, but what’s changed? You tell me.”
I have to admit, he had me on that one. We talked for awhile longer, with me being transfixed through story after story. Before he left we promised to get together for a longer chat.
A few weeks later, I went down to Rosie’s to meet with him.

Louis: Do you remember much of your life before you came to Montreal? You mentioned you got here in 1949.
Shyam: I’m just starting to deal with that. You know, I was born in the war. And the first five years, I remember incidents, but I don’t remember feelings. You see, I do realize now that my life was lived in a household of fear—what’s gonna happen? My father was able to keep us out of the clutches until 1944. Then in 44, when they (the nazis) realized they were losing the war, it was like ‘Everybody goes, we don’t care.’ Until that point, if you were a Jew you were important to the town. You got like a leave of absence, so to speak. The nazis, when they moved in, didn’t want to disrupt everyday normal life there. And then when they started losing the war, they said ‘Fuck it.’ I’m just starting to get into that, slowly. It was like another person had lived it. That’s what you do, you create these other identities that experience traumas.
They’ve dealt a lot with holocaust survivors, with the children who were born to survivors of the holocaust, but they never dealt with people like me, who were children in the holocaust. They’re just starting to. But these groups that exist wouldn’t have really been a support to me. And I know, there are a few adults that I’ve spoken to, and suddenly it’s like a competition. ‘I wasn’t really in it, because they went through…’—‘Yeah, but you were twenty. I was four.’ You know? We don’t compare. Yeah, I’m sure your life was traumatic and heavy and all that. But it’s a different effect.
What happened with me was suddenly someone sent me a newsletter from one of these groups they have, and there was a poem in there. I don’t recall the words exactly. But what it did to me, was suddenly ‘Oh, she’s talking about the child getting married.’ And it’s like, you’re there, but you’re not there, you’re there but you’re not there. And suddenly this thing came up, and I started crying, and I couldn’t really stop it. And I accepted it. I had to accept it was a part of me.
Part of the belief was that the children will outgrow it. Children don’t outgrow trauma, any trauma. It’s a part of us. That’s part of who we are. We don’t remember consciously, but who you grow up to be is part of that. Certain fears, certain paranoias. Until about five, six years ago, I told nobody that I was a Jew. I just like, created this persona, that would not manifest any level of Jewishness. You know, that typical Jewish behaviour. Little gestures, little expressions of the voice and so forth. If I was at a party and somebody would be bad-mouthing Jews, I wouldn’t open up.
So I’m dealing with it slowly. Now, I’m slowly starting to see the confidence side. Because every negative aspect has a positive aspect. I’m starting to understand that OK, there are things that as a result of that, there was a negative part, the fears, that there were certain things I developed to deal with that.
L: A negative thing, like a picture— it takes a negative to inscribe the positive with it.
S: Yeah.
L: You were originally from…
S: Czechoslovakia.
L: Do you remember much from right after the war?
S: I remember my parents finding me after the war.
L: You were seperated?
S: Yeah, I was alone. It was a children’s concentration camp. And… then moving to this farm. Going to school.
L: They didn’t kill Jewish children?
S: Not right away. This camp was set up as a kind of model camp to show the Red Cross the children and old people. The others were at working camps. They worked til they fell asleep because they weren’t fed. And when they got too feeble, they went to the gas chambers. Then towards the end of the war where it became this mass… where I was, they actually had gas chambers built towards the end of the war.
I remember being woken one morning, very early—it was still dark out. We had to march to this square. There was a lot of us. We waited and we waited and we waited and we waited, then we were marched back. I don’t know, it could’ve been… that they didn’t work… because they were just being put into effect. That’s what I want to find out more about, that incident.
Then when the family got back together, it was very affluent for us, after the war. My father was a goldsmith. And then the communists took over. That’s when he decided that it would be better if we didn’t stay. So we came to Canada. ’49, August, we landed here. Suddenly I was, you know, learning a new language. And then we were split, because somewhere, I became a Canadian. At nine, you do it very quickly. Our parents didn’t, it was very difficult. They wanted their children to be part of the culture here. It was difficult…
My whole life, until the past year, was trying not to be who I really was. To keep on making sure that those pains didn’t come up, keep them from flaring. Getting caught up in a lot of bullshit that really wasn’t me—but it was the me of the diseased me. That’s what all of this is. We’re all caught in this- somehow we think who we really are is not loveable, therefore we try to be somebody else that will be loveable. Because as an infant, that’s what you need, is love.
L: I felt that pressure for a long time, trying to please my parents. and ‘pick a line,’ decide what I was going to do.
S: With Jews, this was a doctor or a lawyer.
L: With me, it was basically some kind of engineer or science-oriented thing, because there were jobs in those fields. Nobody in the family had ever lived from music or art, so they couldn’t really understand that…
S: It’s not only the family, but as a musician, what kind of living are you going to get?    See, the danger there, is sometimes you react. And still don’t choose what you want. What you’re saying is ‘They say black, I’ll say white.’
You’re still not taking the time to think it out, and get in touch with yourself. I remember, you know, one of the first times I started doing that, about fifteen years ago. It was very scary. ‘Cause it’s totally individual, something where there’s no support group. I was in Toronto for a couple of weeks, vacationing. I went to a store and was looking for a shirt. I found one very interesting, very close to the color the Rosie’s sign is, but it was dayglo. I really went for it, but there was something very middle-class suburbia about it. They were into the dayglo at the time. I put it on, it felt great. I said Fuck it, I’m buying it. That was the first time I broke reacting, you know? I mean, if the world has me labelled as something for it, well, fuck it, who cares.
Budgeting, that’s another thing. Budgeting was very middle class suburbia to me, and I wouldn’t do that. Well, fuck, I mean you know. I learned about that when I moved here (Rosie’s.) Every day I would put aside my rent money, my hydro, my Bell, my tax. The rest is mine. What a fucking difference when the end of the month came, and I didn’t have to start praying a week before, “God, let it be good business,” you know. So there, too, that’s very straight in my mind, but it’s still useful. The danger, you see, is in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s what we tend to do. When we’re growing, we react to things that way.
L: Because your reaction only has value if the thing you’re reacting against is still there, you actually uphold what you don’t like more than anything. It’s probably harder for you to shed that stuff than someone who never reacted passionately against it. They can just throw it away, but you have to realize that all this time you’ve been counting on it so you could be such a rebel.
S: Of course. ‘Cause you’re still not choosing a life of your own. You’re still letting other things take you along, you’re being influenced by the outside, instead of being influenced by your feelings.  It reminds me of a line from a movie I saw recently. This woman tells her friend who smokes that maybe she should quit. She answers, ‘Well, look at me as a work in progress.’
That’s a very good line, I like that. Once we start waking up, we’re all works in progress. No, I’m not perfect, but I’m learning. If I don’t accept responsibility for myself, I can no longer point fingers at anybody. I can’t point my finger at an oil company as long as I drive a car.
L: Yeah, yeah. What about the fact that an oil company is just a bunch of people with jobs like yours or mine? An ‘activist’ or a journalist might write about some ‘evil company,’ but does he really know that? He probably doesn’t know them, and is just being lazy about his job, jumping at a quick condemnation.

S: Laziness is the original sin. I read that somewhere, the writer backed up his claim by saying that when Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Paradise, and God said don’t eat from the tree of knowledge, God was still visible to them. But it would be easier for them to just eat the apple than stay close to God, and all that.
L: Laziness is almost a value now, how it’s so good that machines do all this work for us, and if you work hard enough, you could retire early and do nothing.
S: Well, who sold us that idea? Retirement fund companies and all that. Another story that impressed me a lot:
And see, that’s what we’re caught into.
L: I doubt he’d still feel like fishing after doing all that. I see it often at work, one of the older guys retired at 63 or something, and had nothing to do. So he came back and worked until he was 67. “Never retire,” he told me, “it’s too much work.”
S: That’s what we do, we’re always living with, ‘What’s gonna happen when I grow old?’ My dad worked until the minute before he died. It was bizarre. But he enjoyed what he did. That’s what I’m learning about now, money is a part of our life, whether we like it or not. But it shouldn’t be the reason for our life. And that goes for anything. Sex is part of my life, but it’s not the reason for my life. You see? Work’s a part of my life. The goal of the work I do is part of my life, but it’s not the reason for it. There’s something beyond all of that, all parts of my life. But until you go inside and find your center, everything is a reason for your life, even escaping from all the reasons and allowing yourself to be lazy. You don’t have a life of your own. You can’t control, and say ‘OK, I will do so much of this, and I will so much of that,’ and know what it is you want to do.
L:  I think that a lot of the times the people who are doing things they don’t want to do so some day they can just do what they do want… at some point trying to do it is the exact thing keeping it away from them.
S: It’s like we create dreams, and someday should those dreams come to pass, what then? You see, so we keep them at bay always, always a reason to keep them away. To keep dreaming. It’s being afraid to be who you are. You know? Because, as a child, you’re not allowed to be who you are. You get squashed.
When I started to go through this whole process of discovering ‘who am I,’ I realized things that were in my life that I had to get rid of. Things like obligation—it’s an energy that gets instilled in us. So, for me, suddenly, to be nice, that was my choice. To be mean- I don’t have a right. To trip you when you’re carrying two shopping bags—that’s wrong. To help you carry those bags, is my choice. I don’t have to. In your eyes, you might think that’s not nice—that’s your problem.
L: Yeah, we can’t hinge arguments on negatives, on things that aren’t, or aren’t done.
S: That’s how we control each other. ‘Oh, he’ll think I’m not nice, so…’ But then he got me.
Most of us aren’t being us. At first when I started shedding all these layers, I thought ‘the true me will blossom forth.’ No, there’s no true me. Now I have the power to build who I want to be. And now I have to build the character, the personality I want to be. I want life to flow a certain way. I always thought, this person will emerge suddenly, out of nowhere, you know. No. But what I do have—and I’m learning, not to be afraid to express my feelings. Where before, as a kid when I expressed them, I was told No No
No. That’s not right. You know, you fall, as a little kid, three years old, you start crying. Yes, you might have hurt yourself physically. You might have been embarassed and have an emotional hurt, too. But your parents, ‘oh no no no, that didn’t hurt, that didn’t hurt.’ In your mind, your parents are still the Right one, so you squash your feeling, you swallow your feelings.
And then you’ve cut those, you’re not in touch with them. They’re moving through here (touches his chest.) And then people say ‘Well, I think I feel…’ ‘Well, I think I have…’ ‘Well, I think I don’t like…’ Me, I know I don’t like, you know?
L: These thoughts which they think might lead them to the answer to the problem are the problem.
S: There is no problem. There is no problem. The universe is unfolding as it should. See, I’m starting to believe that part of our problem that we see is because we’re so attached to this level of reality. And just like an older generation is afraid of change, we are also afraid of change. So we want it to be as we know it. You know, God rested on the seventh day. The creation didn’t stop. This creation is still ongoing.
Ay, the dinosaurs disappeared, the planet continued. We might disappear, the planet will continue. You know, all this stuff they’re doing to clean up rivers and lakes? It’s bullshit. All you have to do is stop polluting them. They’ll clean themselves. No problem there. And it’s like, yeah, these beings will die off, and others will come to be. That’s what happens when you live in this muck. Same with us.
But I think it’s our attachment to this physical plane that’s created a lot of this ignorance.
L: Especially when this physical plane gets more and more cold (knocks the wall), basically stone, and not a soft living thing like us.
S: But you notice in the sidewalk where suddenly there’s a crack and a sprout coming through. You know, that green stuff growing can break cement. So it’s like somewhere, the universe is behaving as it should. Mother nature knows what’s happening. It’s part of the evolution. But it’s hard, because we’re attached to it. But if we aren’t attached, then it’s OK.
L: You mentioned once that before the fifties, people were more ready to do things themselves. In the thirties, people started doing things on their own, and then with all the jobs and appliances in the fifties, they began expecting that if there were problems, the government would take care of them. By now, we don’t really expect the government to do anything for us anymore, but still, we’re not doing much ourselves.
S: But you see, now the reality, the government is saying, no, we’re not going to take care of it. You see? We’re not going to take care of it. You’re going to have to learn again how to take care of it.
L: But then again, it’s quite different from the last time we were more on our own, in the thirties. My dad always told me about how during the depression, they had so little money, but—they had a goat in the back, some chickens, all this. But today, of course, it’s very hard to set yourself up like that, you’d need capital first. If you decided to go live in the bush, you’d need to get wood to build the house with, or good tools at least, you need to get a ticket to get out there…
S: (looking skeptically at me) And then you need to get electricity so you could plug in your VCR.
L: Well, you don’t need to go that far…
S: No no—it’s not hard. Again, it’s that thing, you know, what do I want to give up? The easy life. You know what I’m saying? I know, I lived on the streets when I was in my twenties and my thirties. I know how to do it. But you know, I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t need luxury hotels, but at the same time, I don’t need to live on the street. No.
L: I guess that even though a lot of these comforts are unnecessary, that’s what our culture is now, all this stuff we’re addicted to. It seems like a lot of this started in the fifties.
S: Well, middle class was around before, the ‘bourgeois middle class.’ It’s the size of it that started happening in the fifties, you see. I’ll tell you, I was born in that belief system. We didn’t understand that the planet was an unlimited resource. It is and it isn’t. The land will keep supplying if you allow it to rest.
L: That’s not what we do anymore.
S: Well, we don’t, but, we might do it again. You know?
L: Or it will move us back again, give us a rest.
S: There’s been plagues on this planet before. Maybe that’s nature’s way of cleaning us out. And AIDS, it’s fascinating—the thing that brings us life is bringing us death. That’s how we spread, is sperm and blood. Another thing is that we don’t have predators. Animals, they have predators, an animal gets a little too old, boom, an eagle is there or a wolf is there. And then microbes, the smallest thing going, has got us screaming. And they have as much right to exist as we do. We only see them as an enemy, because they might destroy our life, but we would become overpopulated on the planet if not for these things.
It was funny, I was reading in the paper something about how Imperial Tobacco was doing these studies, and they figured people who smoked are actually a benefit to society. Because they die eight years quicker or something, and all that money the system is going to save by not paying old age pension or anything.
L: Well, you can count the beans any way you want to.
S: And they’re both right. Today, the story of that Barfly thing—both sides are right. I wasn’t there to witness it, so right there I’ve got suspicions, and then you come in…
L: See, that’s an interesting point right there. Realizing that all these stories are right, all the statistics are right, the economists are right and the environmentalists are right, there are endless ways of representing and proving all these things. Now that’s where I think morals can come back and be useful, if you realize OK, these are all truths, but is there a guide we can use to decide that one is better than the other? Maybe one rule of thumb we can have is just seeing which decisions end up with less pavement and more grass, instead of the opposite, which is what’s going on now.
S: Ah, but these environmentalists, they gotta do studies, and they gotta do more studies, and they gotta spend money to do those studies, and they gotta set up offices to do those studies in. So now where is their money coming from? It’s just another industry. Besides, how can we decide what’s best for the environment? It’s like the fish deciding what’s best for the ocean. That’s the evil thing in us. Who the fuck are we to decide what’s best for the environment? And where are we coming out of when we’re deciding that—the same route that the Catholics came out of in the Industrial Age.
L: I think there could be a rule of thumb, though, basically revolving around our shit. How much of what we leave behind can go back into the cycle, into life? How much of it is a tombstone?
S: I agree with you, but the environmentalists are creating shit that can’t go back in during their studies. You know, I have this question in my mind forever. When was it when suddenly ‘biodegradable’ soap and all that… how many chemicals does it take to create biodegradableness?
Recycling itself, how much energy does it take? I mean, the bottom line is stop
consuming. That’s the fucking bottom line to it. That’s the only solution.
L: Well, we’re well-placed for that here, compared to the suburbs. Just walking everywhere, right there, no gas, none of the car’s plastic and metal shit getting worn out into trash. It’s a huge difference. Also, around here, more things come from nearby, local beer coming from the local breweries…
S: Yeah, but wait until they get big enough and start exporting. Look at Sleeman’s. When they started, the whole point was that they were a local beer, wherever they came from. Now they’re all over here.
L: That whole reality of it is lost from back when business was just craftsmen or farmers or seamstresses setting up in the market…
S: But we can’t go back. We can go ahead. Forget the past, how it was. The only lesson is to make sure you don’t repeat those errors, and you don’t repeat those things. I can’t change what I did. But we feel guilty, and we use it to manipulate others. You created the problem. They did the best they knew how, there was no intention to fuck up the planet. There was no intention…
L: Well, there still isn’t. There kinda is, by ignorance, but…
S: Same with this program for emissions now. This world level of emissions of carbon monoxide, blah blah blah.
So they were supposed to reduce it to the old levels by the year two thousand, now they’re saying two thousand and eight. What about Here and now.  Same with us. If suddenly you couldn’t afford your own apartment anymore- are you willing to go back to that? In the fifties, you didn’t move out and get your own apartment. Are you ready to accept that? No? So there’s no going back. BUT- nature will force you to go back. That’s something else.
In the fifties and sixties, it was great, it was wonderful, everything was coming up roses. What they did was for the best intentions. Literally. I went for many years believing my parents would sit up at night plotting how to fuck me up. You know? Their relationship wasn’t good, and I reacted to that. But they had the best in mind for me. You know? I think until we become parents, we don’t understand that process.
L: I’ve only recently begun bridging that gap with my parents, too. I used to think they just wanted to keep me from what I wanted to be more like them and all…
Shyam: No, they meant well. Unfortunately, it’s like that saying, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’
When I got into this business here, part of my philosophy was ‘the best quality possible, and the best prices possible. I don’t have to make a big profit.’ Suddenly I realized that most of my customers were earning more money than I was. I was walking out of there with a welfare salary. Worse, because I had to work a hundred hours a week. And I said waitaminute, that’s abuse of myself. I couldn’t buy a pair of boots when winter set in. I was running around in running shoes. Well, suddenly I realized that abusing myself was abusing the universe. I’m part of that universe. And I started moving. I said, ‘As a cook, I can earn eight dollars an hour. I have the right to earn eight dollars an hour.’ But, as the Manager who runs the restaurant, runs the kitchen, all of that, I can make fifteen dollars an hour. I have a right to make fifteen dollars an hour. OK, I don’t need that kind of money, that’s too much. So therefore, I can now have the right to make my schedule easier, choose who my customers are gonna be.
L: The endless growth of money is made out to be the driving force of the whole world right now, though, the ultimate value.
S: Yeah, but even happiness, it’s not gonna buy it. You can buy diversion from the fact that you’re not happy. So then you smoke another joint, or get drunk again. Or buy a new car, or buy a new house, or buy a new wife. But, no, see. You cannot buy joy, you cannot buy happiness. You can divert yourself for a year or two, or until the new models come out, or whatever, you know. But that’s what consumerism is, the ultimate drug.
L: There’s nothing worse than being addicted to addiction. Always gotta be some new thing, new kick.
S: You can get out of it. Sure, you can get out of it. But—only you can do it.
For me, the word manipulation was always negative. Always. But manipulation can be very positive—but somehow that’s the connotation that it got, was negative.
L: I think that’s more covert manipulation, secretly manipulating. But you still have to take control over yourself. Otherwise somebody will, something will.
S: But somebody can only take control over you if you allow them to. See, so it’s always your responsibility. You have to take back the power. The power includes individuality.